It is not worth it to sacrifice the
interest of the country for the sake of my son.
Chiang Kai-shek, second leader of Kuomintang
Oda Kaori (singer) & Michiko Naruke (lyrics)
For Dr. Tsai, a Taiwanese political prisoner of the Kuomintang, death is the only thing he thinks about every day.
His only crime is inciting a revolution and the evidence is that he once raised a question on how the ruling party was treating democratic values. Defeated, he remembers how he had “spent a few weeks with young [Japanese] men preparing for their fights” in World War II and this is the grave lesson he has learned. “American soldiers were trained to kill,” he believes, “Japanese soldiers were instructed to die.” When he refers to Japanese soldiers, he means the kamikaze pilots who perform the unspeakable act of diving their planes to ships — a honorable suicide — for the country they love.
He doesn’t know that when he returns home at last his imprisonment will alienate him from his family for life, especially with his newborn daughter. But for now, he thinks he has seen the worst when the political prisoners he came alongside with are executed by the firing squad. All he can do is learn to stay quiet and depersonalize himself. If he has to lie to save himself and his family, he will. And thus, Dr. Tsai concludes that the kamikaze pilots were right: “Survival carried no honor.”
How could anyone arrive at that logic? Why is living, in Dr. Tsai’s eyes, a sin that cannot be erased? Will anyone be able to understand him?
These questions are the story of a vague hope from his newborn daughter who wants to understand her father and everyone else affected by the Kuomintang takeover of Taiwan.
Taiwan has never been the democratic republican wonderland as pictured in US history textbooks. It first came into the modern world as a strong Japanese colony with some representatives in the Diet. The Japanese government saw some hope in the colony and encouraged the locals to pick up more Japanese practices, an influence we still see today in modern Taiwan.
However, the final years of World War II and the Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists changed everything. The Kuomintang, a nationalist political party led by Chiang Kai-shek, was brutally defeated by the Communists and their popularity plummeted during the war as they liked to put politics before freedom from Japan first; they escaped to Taiwan and created a government-in-exile there, which the United States of America promptly recognized as the sole proprietor of the name: the Republic of China.
Under the leadership of the Kuomintang, Taiwan was supposed to be a liberal democracy just like its close American allies. Taiwan was a great place for the United States to station their troops and oversee the rise of Mao Zedong in China. But the American government plead the fifth when it came to Kuomintang’s domestic policies. Kidnappings and cold-blooded murders were the preferred method of speech for the party.
The narrator of this novel, the unnamed and youngest daughter of Dr. Tsai, begins with her reimagining the circumstances of her birth:
My mother Li Min’s labor pains began the night that the widow was beaten in front of the Tian-ma Teahouse.
The first cramp was unmistakable. She leaned against the wall and pressed her fingers to the underside of her belly. All her previous children had taken their time, leisurely writhing for days before they finally decide to emerge. She expected the same with the fourth.
Superstitions and “women’s lore” about birth fill Li Min’s mind as she waits for the midwife to come in tomorrow with the castor oil. But “across town, the widow, who sold black market cigarettes in front of the teahouse run by the popular silent film narrator Zhan Tian-ma, was about to become infamous.”
Unnamed in the book and only referred to as “the widow” or the “cigarette vendor”, Lin Jiangmai was hit on the head by a Tobacco Monopoly Bureau agent:
She clutched her head. Her fingers were greasy with blood. Pain rippled through her skull in slow waves. She imagined she head her children screaming somewhere in the chaos.
The Monopoly Bureau agents, pressed to the widow’s fallen body by the crowd rolling angrily toward them in a fog of cursing, kicked her. Eyes wild, the agents waved their guns and threatened to shoot, but the crowd’s cries swallowed their words.
The people would not retreat; some fought to get the bleeding cigarette vendor, while others surged forward in rage. The agents began firing and the crowd collapsed, fleeing, breaking into a hundred splinters.
Meanwhile, Li Min wonders if her child is a boy. She would like a son who would model the “seriousness” and “stoicism” of her husband. If it is another daughter, well, she has nothing to teach. Except:
She could teach her to dream — say, to be a painter, as she herself had been trained — and then teach her to let it go. Teach her the rice-paper doors while knowing there was no point in putting it on canvas. Already, her oldest child, a daughter, at ten years old could make simple meals, washed laundry, and cared for her younger brothers. Li Min did not know how to give her more.
She has no idea that the streets of Taiwan in February 28, 1947 are filled with the cackling of that “abstract word”: “justice”. A man is shot and is bleeding on the ground. People have tried hailing a rickshaw to which the driver replies, “Oh no. No dead passengers.” Li Min tries to sleep, but she sits up in the dark and feels “the weight of the baby pressing against her bones.” If she had went downstairs to listen to the radio, the narrator imagines, she may have heard the news.
The next day, the narrator is born.
This impossible feat of narrating such detailed scenes from a subjective view is everywhere throughout the novel. You could only find such high level of detail in omniscient third-person narrators who have the ability to peek into people’s personalities. But the narrator of Green Island makes an effort in trying to recreate events and scenes she has not taken a part in.
This includes trying to get deep into the psychology of people. People she don’t really get who include her mother and father.
Her peculiar behavior seems to have started when her father, Dr. Tsai, has finally returned home after years of political imprisonment. His reappearance shocks her because he had disappeared when she was still an infant. She knows she has a dad, but “according to official history” her father had not “disappeared” in March 1947. Until he returned, the symbol of a father to her was akin to a mythical figure.
It is beyond strange for her to be under a new authority figure who she could not get a grasp on. Who is this man that she has to call Baba, the Chinese word for Dad? Why is he making her do more homework than the other siblings? Is this his way to show his love after all these years of disappearance? It doesn’t help that the doctor is not a doctor anymore; he is traumatized from years of solitary confinement and propaganda. All he can do is blankly stare at his children and wonder where the lost time has gone to.
How can a daughter like the narrator try to empathize with him? The answer may come from how she narrates his tale for she is aware she is a narrator of events she has never seen and experienced. Characters in her imagined version of his Taiwan don’t seem to speak like Taiwanese; their sparse dialogs and curses sound like any English-speaking character in American or British novels — the only way you could tell they were supposed to be speaking in Taiwanese is the helpful but infrequent dialog tag, “they said in Taiwanese”. In fact, there aren’t many disclaimers that show she has delegated herself to the role of a historical fiction writer, fictionalizing some of the events she has purportedly experienced.
But she is not a liar. She wants to understand why her father thinks like this, why her mother behaves like that, and why the family is like this. In chapter 14, she dedicates her writing talent to them:
I imagine the time before Baba left, before my siblings and I existed, when my parents were just a family of two.
It’s an August evening in 1935. The sun has set and the street glows with neon signs and lit apartment windows. Occasionally, car headlights slice the dark.
Note the tense change between the first and second paragraph. She does a quick disclaimer that this will be a flashback, possibly fictional, and dives into the time of August 1935 as if it is present. The scene of her father and mother as newlyweds walking down a street and into a restaurant continues as if it is really happening in front of her very eyes.
This desire to comprehend the father’s psychology in such detail comes off as a desperate attempt by the narrator to put herself in his shoes. Indeed, at the turning point late in the book, she “tells” the reader about her dramatic retelling of an event “because a thousand times I have forced myself to envision this scene in every minuscule detail, looking for the tiny gap, the slip, the one decision that might have changed everything.” The way she searches for every nook and cranny in her imagination defies anybody’s expectations of what narrators should do. However, this is the way she copes as a narrator of a story she doesn’t know.
Why does she take such great lengths to do this? As I read the novel more and more, I find her life is being systematically detached from the family life in Taiwan. She gets arranged to marry Wei, a politically motivated Taiwanese-American, and moves to Berkeley in California. There is no doubt her relationship with her father is worse than just being strained. He is a stranger who is married to her mother for some unknown reason.
But in the back of her mind, the narrator subconsciously sees parallels to her father’s life in imprisonment and his inevitable alienation. Before she flies off to America, she thinks that she’ll never see her niece grow up after taking care of them for so long. The same way as her dad never getting the opportunity to see her grow up.
She brushes these thoughts aside, but her marriage with Wei reminds her too well of her parents. Wei is too politically ambitious for his own good and the narrator feels threatened her American dream — the nuclear family — could one day evaporate because of his activities. It gets more difficult to breathe when Wei reveals to her that the family needs to bring in a political refugee from Taiwan. Wei’s aggressiveness against Kuomintang branches in the United States is well noted in the Taiwanese government.
At a certain point, the narrator becomes overwhelmed with the problems of their marriage. “Marriage was always for love,” she had once thought before the wedding, “but sometimes that love was for family, not the lover.” She remembered her father’s words, “Never fail to comply“, because “it was easier than defiance” — referencing his time in prison. But for the poor narrator, this is beginning to be too much. Filial piety can’t be the sole reason for being quiet and following the order.
She feels Wei is taking over her life bit by bit. Her daughters seem to be his allies. Her education is controlled by him. Her thoughts may as well be his.
She is as imprisoned by her husband as her father was by the Kuomintang. Maybe that is why her attention to imagining vivid details is so high. She is living in parallel to her father, just in a different context.
Historical parallels and motifs aren’t avoided in the book at all. If there is a way for the narrator to see her situation and the political situation in Taiwan in other contexts. she will. When I read the historical retelling of Richard Nixon recognizing Deng Xiaoping’s party as the official representative of China in a grand event, I also read the grand wedding of the narrator and Wei. When I read about the Kuomintang continuing to harass and imprison Taiwanese people even in America, I also read Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis.
This interlacing of events is the greatest strength of this historical fiction novel. It reminds the readers and the narrator herself the incidents of the world are connected to Taiwan in one form or another. Westerners are living in parallel to Asians. And distinct cultures with unique histories aren’t that different from each other when it comes to historical patterns.
Thus, the narrator takes a damning stance against the United States’s realpolitik foreign policy because the Americans don’t listen to people. Nations are just pawns. When the people of other nations who do speak and the Americans listen, she is “bitterly” reminded of what a Kuomintang agent had described to her as “Americans’ voyeurism of international tragedy”:
On American soil, the Iranians, like us [Taiwanese], had been vulnerable to the cooperative machinations of the CIA and their own secret police. As with the KMT, information was exchanged tit for tat with the shah’s men, so that an American, bolstered by the promise of the First Amendment, was guaranteed to have his brother’s legs broken in the homeland for the wrong words uttered so many thousands of miles away.
Nations and peoples are betrayed by the American Dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This the narrator learns to empathize with other people of lives and backgrounds so different to hers. It isn’t just her trying to connect with her father anymore but many others who are in similar situations like him.
The comparatively small but grand scale of Taiwanese history marches alongside the other countries in the world. She has to make connections and create her own philosophy from what she knows by herself. Her story of her parents are also her own story. She makes the leap from reading Jane Austen novels to the translator of the political refugee she is housing to an aspiring writer who wants to make her voice be known to the world.
But she knows she has to maintain a distance between her and the world. She has a family and wants to keep her nuclear family dream intact. It is this dilemma that was once part of the background in her marriage which strangles her in the inside. Is it her duty to be filial to her husband and parents or is it time for her to break free from the chains? Does family go before national identity?
Her shaky marriage and wandering thoughts make her realize that she is still Taiwanese no matter what. She is the daughter of Dr. Tsai and Li Min, parents she still doesn’t understand much of. She has a responsibility to the world, not just as an American but a Taiwanese as well.
The novel ends in around 2004, the year the SARS pandemic hit Taiwan. Taiwan is not under the Kuomintang rule anymore, but it still feels like nothing has changed when China wants to force its authorities onto the land to stop SARS. Just another redux of the same pattern, this time on a potentially more global scale.
It is easy to be a nihilist if you accept this kind of interpretation of history. The Americans only care about the American — the narrator — stuck in a hospital visiting her dying mother while the two thousand Taiwanese are treated as dirt. One more case of Americans caring about themselves and not the consequences of their actions.
But the narrator, in the face of sadness and events that have transpired, still wants to learn about other people. She wants to write a novel about the people she will never understand but love regardless. She wants to write a scene where a man looks at a woman he has fallen in love with at first sight and says:
“We are curious creatures, we Taiwanese. Orphans. Eventually, orphans must choose their own names and write their own stories. The beauty of orphanhood is the blank slate.”
The love of his dreams sees him hesitating over his choice of blasphemous words:
“I understand,” she says, and then she quotes Du Fu: “The country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain.”
These two fictional characters may be stand-ins for the narrator’s parents. A piece of fiction and coping method to heal her alienation, her unnamed self. It can still be seen as a lie. There is no honor in lying and there is definitely no honor in surviving either. Only shame remains.
But living has never been about honor. It is about a voice. The “distinct, alive” voice. To listen to this voice, no matter how much of a fiction it may be, and spread awareness of it require bravery, not honor. The voice is more than a museum or a personal story. The act of listening to this voice is when “two distant points” touch and become “a bridge and amends”.
That may truly be why I read historical fiction of nations and cultures I’m not a part of. Worlds apart, these settings may never come into contact with my life. Yet, they are filled with names of people who are living as much as I am now. I want to listen to what they have to say.